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Studying Sports for Leadership

I just listened to a great podcast from the Lowe Post—an NBA-centric show—about the book The Captain Class. I haven’t read the book myself, but you get a good gist of it from their discussion, the idea that in order for sports teams to develop dynasties and win consistently, that they need both the right players as well as a captain who sets the tone in the locker room. That is, while having world-class talent is important to winning at the highest levels, that alone is insufficient for sustained, repeated excellence, which takes having also the right culture built by the team itself1.

Sports have always provided me a rich canvas for leadership, particularly once I got into management myself. When Square made a leadership course for its managers, the book that made an impression was The Score Takes Care of Itself, by the renowned coach of the San Francisco 49ers2. When reading biographies of sports figures, I look for these stories; not just of statistical excellence and perseverance, but of instances where they did a little thing to motivate a teammate, or share their underlying beliefs that govern how they play on the field.

What makes sports—and specifically, team sports—such a valuable source for inspiration? On one hand, it’s pretty obvious: athletes strive for excellence in competitions that are mostly zero-sum, with only one actual winner, and embodying that mentality as well as the tactics involved to achieve that victory carries over into other domains. Then there’s the team factor, the idea that sports are designed to reward great teamwork, and so winning a championship or a gold medal is an unambiguous metric for measuring how well teams work together plus the processes and culture which enable that success.

One under-appreciated aspect, though, of using sports as a teacher is that there are so many eyes scrutinizing the details. Because sports play an outsized role in society and leadership is a critical differentiator, outsized attention is spent analyzing the tenets of leaders in sports. It provides the perfect setting: the tension, drama, storylines, and harkening to a tribal “us vs. them” mentality keeps sports fans talking about their favorite players’ leadership instances. And if those lessons happen to be more broadly applicable and inspirational, so much the better.

Personally, I really like the way that Steve Kerr runs the Golden State Warriors in the NBA. Yes, it’s easy to speak highly of a coach and team local to the Bay Area, has won 2 championships in 3 years and may be one of the best NBA teams ever, but it’s still worth learning about and—for my teams anyway—trying to emulate some of his philosophies. Specifically, the Warriors don’t take things too seriously, stay collaborative, and spend the extra effort to find and develop high-minded players; these points are easy to agree with, but hard to actually execute in practice.

As is the case with most management practices.

  1. And interestingly, the author claims that the critical role is a team’s captain, and not necessarily the coach.

  2. High Output Management was also a great book, but standard reading at this point.

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